US failure on Bosnian arms exposes split

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

The US failed yesterday to persuade the leading European powers to help re-arm the mainly Muslim Bosnian armed forces. The move has revealed a split which threatens to divide not only the Nato nations in the peace Implementation Force but also the five-nation "contact group".

Representatives of more than 30 countries met in Ankara to discuss US proposals to re-arm and re-train the Bosnian government forces. But Britain and France were only observers and the Russians refused to attend.

The US wants to build up the forces of the Bosnian government and their Croat allies - before the withdrawal of the Nato-led peace force, I-For, at the end of the year - as a counterweight to the better-armed Bosnian Serb forces. Britain and France always opposed arming one side in the civil war and still oppose arming the Muslim-Croat entity before I-For withdraws, in case the arms are turned on their peacekeeping troops.

If the US drive succeeds, Britain, France and Russia will not only be humiliated diplomatically but will also be excluded from arms sales. US equipment and training played a major part in Croatia's victories last summer and are also used by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have played a leading role in supporting US efforts to re-arm the Bosnian Muslims.

So far, the US has offered $100m and was trying yesterday to gain further contributions from oil-rich Arab states. Bosnia's senior representative, Muhamed Sacirbey, is seeking $750m to $1bn in the first year.

Mr Sacirbey said the Bosnian forces had about 200,000 men under arms and that although the economy would benefit from demobilising some of the troops, it would cost more money in the short term.

The Bosnian army is a mainly infantry force and needs more heavy weapons. Colonel Terry Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said yesterday that the first priority would be light armoured vehicles of the type widely used by the British and French in Bosnia, and light artillery. Although Britain and France are most unlikely to supply arms now, diplomatic sources said Britain might assist in other areas, such as training in mine-clearance.

Experts agree that the most important part of strengthening the Bosnian armed forces will be improving command, control, communications and training, plus support including trucks and rations.

t The UN attacked Bosnia's government yesterday for failing to curb looting and intimidation of Serbs in the Ilidza district of Sarajevo, now returned to Muslim-Croat control. Letters, page 14